Friday, December 19, 2014

My Paragraph from Birmingham Jail

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to participate in a reading of Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail. We recorded it; it'll eventually be made available at Red Letter Christians. This was the letter King wrote, on scraps of paper snuck in and out of prison by his lawyer and other visitors, in response to white moderate clergy who had criticized the nonviolent direct action King and others had conducted against the city's segregationist policies. In addition to putting people in prison, Birmingham police and fire fighters attacked protesters, including children, with dogs and fire hoses.

The letter is one of the most significant moral documents of the twentieth century and is especially poignant in the wake of recent acts of violence by police against black men and children in various precincts throughout the country, and the failures of the justice system to properly prosecute the deaths of black men like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.

We read this document in the context of a larger conversation about race, institutional bias and violence, and the role of white allies in the cause of racial justice. There are, of course, other racially tinged conversations taking place in the United States these days, principally related to immigration reform. Our group was relatively ethnically diverse, made up mainly of activists and community organizers of various stripes, with a progressive bent. It was still hard to talk about race, and especially to talk about the role of white people in the pursuit of what King called the beloved community. We didn't resolve anything in particular, and I suspect more conversations were started than wrapped up. But we sat together, and in ways small and large we stood together.

I mostly operated the video camera for the reading of the letter, which was profound for me in and of itself. Tony Campolo, a decades-long champion of justice and racial healing, spoke with his typical passion. Urban hippie Shane Claiborne was powerful in his soft voice; new monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove read slowly and deliberately, letting every word count. Seminarian Micky ScottBey Jones and organizer-scholar Alexie Torres-Fleming read with the passion of a mother and a prophet; pastor and blogger Anthony Smith delivered the opening and closing paragraphs of the letter with the same delicate balance of vision and cynicism that I see reflected in King's text. And there were many, many others, people of all stripes, giving voice to King's words, reminding us that though we've come a long, long way, we have terribly far still to go.

In addition to recording the letter, I also got to read a portion of it. I actually requested the paragraph I read; it references my wife's great-uncle, Ralph McGill, at the time the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who I'm proud-slash-relieved to say was on the right side of history. I think of Ralph often, as our work overlaps: he, the editor of a historic newspaper in a major city; I, an editor of books. That's about where the similarities end, but I like to think about how hard it must have been for him to have a public voice, to curate messages and stories for a divided public, at a seminal and painful moment in American history:

  • How do you bring hard news to the hard-hearted?
  • How do you give voice to the voiceless?
  • How do you hold up justice while holding out for peace and restoration?
  • How do you mediate and moderate conversations that are packed with rage and loaded with the weight of history?
I have no idea how Ralph carried this burden - he died well before I met his great-niece - but I think of him when I think about the weight of history I sometimes find landing in my in box.

Here's what I read from King's letter:

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need [the need for intervention in the oppression of blacks in the segregated American South]. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some - such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle - have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as "dirty nigger-lovers." Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful "action" antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.
I wanted to read this paragraph for the video because I thought it would honor Ralph's memory. It was, nevertheless, a hard paragraph to read. There are words in it that I am loathe to say. More than even that, however, was the challenge underlying these words.

Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden, Sarah Patton Boyle and the other unnamed white allies in King's letter are not characterized as "radicals" or even "progressives." They're certainly honored as "brothers" (and, presumably, "sisters"), but brothers and sisters "of the oppressor race." Moreover, their acts of moral courage - to write to a white audience in favor of integration and the civil rights of black people, to march with blacks in hostile towns, to endure imprisonment, to experience official violence in solidarity with their black neighbors - these acts of moral courage are merely, in King's vision, "moderate."

It is not in the least bit radical, King demonstrates methodically throughout the letter, to acknowledge the basic human rights of another human being. It's hardly progressive to recognize the difference between a just law and an unjust law, to obey the one and defy the other. We are not saints when we stand with people who are persecuted and oppressed. We are doing the basic thing, the only right thing.

TWEET THIS: It is not in the least bit radical to acknowledge the basic human rights of another human being.

When we fail to do these things, we fall short of even moderation; when we fail to stand for and with those whose rights are being violated, who are suffering violence in service to an unjust system, we have fallen into sin.

TWEET THIS: We are not saints when we stand with people who are oppressed. We are doing the basic thing, the only right thing.

The burning question, I think, for most white people, especially white people of good will, when it comes to race relations, is "How much is enough?" That elusive "enough" will ease our white conscience, but it will not serve the cause of justice; it will not settle the matter of racial inequality. King addressed the elusive enough in another historic paragraph, delivered only a few months after Birmingham:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. ... We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. ... We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." ... I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
That day is slow in coming. But it is coming. And we who are white would be wise to be at least moderate enough to stand on the right side of history with our neighbors of color who have waited long enough.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Black Lives Have Always Mattered

I've just made my first ever visit to Birmingham, Alabama, where fifty-one-and-a-half years ago Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for his role in organizing nonviolent protests by black Alabamans against the unfair, inhumane and fundamentally unjust policies of their city. While King was in prison, men, women and children of color were attacked on the streets of Birmingham with dogs and fire hoses. Their attackers were police and fire fighters; the attacks were sanctioned by the commissioner of public safety.

These things happen. I like to think they don’t. I like to think that they used to happen but we know better now; that we’re wiser and more enlightened than the people who decided fifty-one-and-a-half years ago that attacking children was the right thing to do. We like to think that, unlike those silly old Southern racists, we always handle power and authority responsibly, that our motives are more pure, that we are always acting for the greater good.

But history bears out that at least some of the time - certainly more of the time than we'd like to be true about ourselves - we’re not. Sometimes we participate in (or we affirm or we tacitly endorse by our silence) things that are horrific and fundamentally unjust.

  • Things like a pervasive and persistent disparity in how laws are enforced on black people as compared to white people.
  • Things like a legal and cultural predisposition that official acts of violence are above suspicion.
  • Things like the execution of young black men for such crimes as walking through the wrong neighborhood or listening to the wrong music or not showing enough deference to the powers that be.

TWEET THIS: Sometimes we participate in (or affirm or tacitly endorse by our silence) things that are fundamentally unjust.

Black lives matter just as much now as they did fifty-one-and-a-half years ago when white moderate clergy were complaining that Martin Luther King was stirring up trouble. Those well-intended white folks back then encouraged black people that their inherent dignity as human beings was a matter to be deferred till white people were more ready for it. They counseled black people to be patient and understanding toward white racists who were actively, in legal and insidious ways, cultivating a permanent race-based underclass. Black lives mattered back then; those of us who are white just didn’t fully appreciate that fact. It seems so silly now.

Black lives matter just as much now as they did twenty-five years ago when South African whites finally agreed to stop secretly executing black dissidents and officially oppressing the 90 percent of the country who were not white. Black lives mattered back then, even if in every meaningful way, their government demonstrated that they did not. It seems so silly that they didn’t see the fundamental injustice of what they were doing and allowing to be done.

Black lives matter: it seems so silly to say in the abstract. But we say it now as much to ourselves as to everyone else because we as much as anyone, black and white and otherwise, need to be reminded on a regular basis that it’s true. Because in the absence of such reminders, a much quieter system continues to function as though black lives don’t matter that much at all. And the consequences of that system are not silly; they are in fact sobering and solemn: daily injustices and indignities regularly punctuated with the violent deaths of young men — children, more often than not — at the hands of people of power and privilege.

Future generations will read the stories of our time and think us silly; with time the absurdity of it will obscure the bloodiness of it, the inhumanity of it.

TWEET THIS: Future generations will read of our time and think us silly. The absurdity of it will obscure the inhumanity of it.

***

Read Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail here. Read it out loud; read it in a group.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 2

For all the Reformation-yelping about sola Scriptura and the priesthood of all believers, the Bible is, by and large, mediated to the masses through an elite few - through scholars who write commentaries, through trained (and untrained) clergy who interpret the text in their sermons, through Sunday school teachers who direct the learning of their students, through publishers with fallen and finite editors such as myself. Nothing wrong with that - except that, like everyone, the elite have blind spots.

The Scriptures are, by and large, set in a context of oppression and marginalization. Sometimes the audience is the oppressed; sometimes it's the oppressors. Sometimes both audiences are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. We overlook stuff when we forget that about the Scriptures, and when we forget that those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

TWEET THIS: Those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

Hence the project I'm now thinking of:

A People's Commentary on the New Testament

This ongoing experiment is an attempt to notice in the Scriptures a running theme of "striving" (in the words of people's historian Howard Zinn) "against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make ideals [professed in public] a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that."

I fully expect to add confusion alongside insight to the popular conversation about the Scriptures. In other words, I see the folly in this undertaking. But I'm still going to undertake it. :) I invite you to undertake it as well, because otherwise it's not a people's commentary, it's a person's commentary. If you're game,

  1. Pick a chapter of the New Testament and interpret it online.
  2. As you write, think about people you know (or see, or imagine) who are not sitting in the halls of power.
  3. Think of the author of your particular scripture text not as someone with an advance on royalties in the bank and a Macbook Pro on their lap but as someone with no place to lay their head.
  4. Use the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find it, and so eventually we can sync the whole thing together.

You can see an example of what I'm proposing in this commentary on Matthew 1.

And now, without further ado, a people's commentary on Matthew 2.

***

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship ... Matthew 2 begins with a study in contrasts: Jesus ("God saves"), the "Christ" (anointed one) and "Immanuel" (God with us) as declared in Matthew 1, is born in Bethlehem during Herod's kingship in Jerusalem. Bethlehem is mocked in the Old Testament as "bringing up the rear" of the Israelite empire (as Micah is quoted in verses 5-6); meanwhile, Jerusalem is the home of Israel's king, the center of Israel's political and religious life (or so it would seem, as Jerusalem is where Israel's kings have built its temples and their palaces). The fact that Jerusalem is currently under occupation by the Roman empire, and Herod's reign over Israel is subject to Rome's jurisdiction, is ironic: God's people have been looking for salvation in the wrong place, and scorning those marginalized places which God has actually promised to bless. It takes "a band of scholars ... from the East," beyond the reach of both Herod and his Caesar, to look past the marks of power and privilege to see where Israel's actual power resides

Herod ... was terrified — and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Why would the people of Jerusalem be terrified by the fulfillment of their God's promises? We can only speculate, but our speculation is informed by the balances that had been struck by Rome. Jerusalem retained its cultural and religious influence over the rest of Israel, even if it was in effect controlled by Rome. The political and religious authorities allowed to remain in place functioned similarly to the bread and circuses of Roman rule. It was enough, for Herod and Jerusalem, to be seen as powerful, however empty that perception actually was. And in fact Herod did have power, as we will see in the slaughter of innocents to come. But Herod and Jerusalem only had power over those below them, and now here are signs that it is from those below them that a new power is rising up.

Herod offers the scholars from the East aid in tracking down the child. But for all his claims of piety - he offers to "join you at once in your worship" - his real agenda is one of violence, of self-protection. "Herod is on the hunt for this child," Jesus' father Joseph is warned in a dream, "and wants to kill him."

They entered the house and ... kneeled and worshiped him. It is no small thing for citizens of one empire to kneel before the child of another. This is an act of treason, seen in one light; seen in another, it is an acknowledgment that there is power and authority beyond the reach of any earthly empire, and - given the modest and marginalized location of this particular king - this power and authority is exercised in ways that will confound the powers that be.

In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they ... left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country. Like the scouts of ancient Israel who snuck in and out of Jericho, these scholars have been given an advance look at a new world order. The rest of the world will be made aware soon enough.

“Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice." Egypt's destiny has never not been interwoven with Israel's destiny. It has been the temporary home of God's people before, but Israel's reliance on God's provision quickly degraded into reliance on Egypt's might. We worship power before we worship false gods, but the one leads inevitably to the other, and false gods always betray us. Israel learned these lessons the hard way, with enslavement; Jesus will retain his allegiance to God during his time in Egypt, rejecting the allure of force until he fulfills Hosea's prophecy that God "called my son out of Egypt."

TWEET THIS: We worship power before we worship false gods, but the one leads inevitably to the other.

Herod ... commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. Here Herod embraces the way of violence practiced throughout history, most infamously by Pharaoh, who tried to defy the work of God through the people of Israel by killing a generation of Israelites. This is not genocide but fratricide; Herod is killing his own people in a vain attempt to shore up his own power and privilege. No wonder we are reminded of Jeremiah's lament about "Rachel weeping for her children, Rachel refusing all solace." Rachel represents Israel under God's promise: she is the miracle mother, the one who couldn't have children until she suddenly could, the one who carried forward God's promise to Abraham not through his firstborn but through his miracle child, the one who gave birth to a child, Joseph, who would be exiled to Egypt and who would ultimately deliver God's people from devastation. If we kill the children of promise, we reject the promise of God. If we kill the children of promise, we kill ourselves.

"All those out to murder the child are dead.” Joseph hears from God that he is free to leave Egypt. He does, as an act of faith, but fear is still a present and pressing problem among God's people. Joseph fears Archelaus, the successor to Herod, so he is afraid to go home. God meets this moment of faithlessness not with punishment but with grace: is it really, after all, any surprise that those who live in darkness, under violent oppression, with no assurance of self-determination, might look for ways to hedge their bets? God redirects Joseph to Nazareth, another town of no reputation, far removed from the halls of power. In so doing he fulfills another prophecy and makes another statement about the nature of divine power and authority as opposed to the powers of this world: "He shall be called a Nazarene."

***

OK. That's the latest entry in A People's Commentary on the New Testament. I hope you'll join me on this experiment. Remember, mark any entries with the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find what you've written. And do me a favor and message me on Facebook to let me know when you've posted. I'll do my part and spread the word.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Short People: An Advent Reflection

For the first Sunday of Advent, a throwback post from 2010.

***

My first creative writing assignment (at least first in my memory) was a short story, a wildly meta fantasy in which the protagonist (whose name was, most likely, "Dave"--or perhaps "Danny," which as a kid I considered an objectively better name than "Dave" and thus a better name for myself) was soooo much smarter than his peers that he kept being advanced into later grades. Eventually his precociousness took him to high school, where he could no longer reach the handle to his locker. So he returned to the hoi polloi of his age-appropriate class. Poor Dave/Daniel: the one thing he lacked on his rocket to success was a growth spurt.

I was as proud of that story as I was of my presumed advanced intelligence. I wrote songs, short stories, book reviews--you name it--all before adolescence. Even as I shifted my self-concept to "musician," I kept writing. I was proud of the essays I wrote for my college applications, proud of the essays I wrote in my literature class (I very nearly failed that class), proud of the one-liners I'd come up with on the fly to defy my teacher and entertain my French class. I bragged about my wit and mastery of language during a parent-teacher conference, to which my eighth-grade Basic English teacher responded, "Well, I suppose you have to be clever when you're small."

Ouch. In the narrative arc of the hero's journey, this moment might be considered my passage through the first threshold, "which is crossed in such a way that it appears to be death."

That's really the way it works, though, isn't it? Our fantasies about ourselves (which likely have some base in reality) clash with the more common perceptions of us among our peers:

* "I am smart," despite the fact that I had not qualified for advanced English and was stuck in a remedial English course with an insensitive teacher.

* "I am known as witty," despite the more immediately obvious designator for me as "small."

I find myself identifying with another short but otherwise impressive fellow, Zacchaeus. A tax collector in first-century Palestine, he gets nine verses in Luke's Gospel--not enough to really know him, but we get quite a sense of him, because in meeting Zacchaeus we once again encounter Jesus.

Jesus always drew a crowd, and Luke 19 is no different. Everyone in Jericho wanted to get a good look at him, including Zacchaeus. We learn two things about Zac right off the bat:

1. He's the chief tax collector.
2. He's rich.

So in matters of wealth and accomplishment, he's a big deal. Bully for him. But one more detail colors our perception of Zacchaeus*:

3. He's short--so short "he could not see over the crowd."

I imagine the citizens of Jericho begrudgingly paying their taxes to Zac and then consoling themselves by ridiculing him for being tiny. Zac has, conceivably, a Napoleon complex, aggressively and myopically chasing success as a way of compensating for being small. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Napoleon had a Zacchaeus complex. Maybe I have a Zacchaeus complex. Maybe all of us "fun-size" (to borrow a term from my friends the Heuertzes) humor the taller among us with reaches that exceed our grasp.

Anyway, Zac didn't get rich and accomplished by giving up, so he climbs a tree, at which point Jesus sees him and invites himself over to Zac's house for dinner. This audacious act by Jericho's newest big thing must frustrate the townspeople. Wee Zac comes out on top again. To quote the band Midnight Oil: "The rich get richer, the poor get the picture. The bombs never hit you when you're down so low." Zac's neighbors give us another description of who Zac is:

4. He's a lowdown sinner.

But Jesus knows there's more to Zac than what his neighbors think; there's even more to Zac than what Zac thinks.

In a move that nobody saw coming, Zac offers restitution for his unjust (though not illegal) practices in collecting taxes, in keeping with the commands of Torah.** Beyond that, he publicly pledges half his wealth to the poor folks in Jericho, again honoring the spirit of Torah. This is so out of keeping with who Zac knows himself to be, who the townspeople know Zac to be, that it can only be thought of as a miracle. But in the eyes of Jesus, this miraculous Zac has simply returned to normal, because Jesus knows a fifth thing about Zac:

5. He's a child of Abraham.

Zac is a child of Abraham just like all his neighbors, which means he is a beneficiary of the promises of God, a member of a covenant community that, according to God its head, takes care of the poor and treats one another justly. The children of Abraham, the scriptures tell us, love God and love their neighbors as themselves. Jesus tells us that these two rules sum up all of Torah. So this is who Zac is, who his neighbors are--or, more accurately, who they would be if they lived like they were born to live.

Jesus doesn't demand that we be something other than what we are--he didn't lay hands on Zac and make him tall; he didn't take his ill-gotten gains from him by force or expel him from the covenant community for violating usury laws. Jesus called it as he saw it, and he saw more clearly than anyone what needed to happen and indeed what had happened for Zac:

6. He's saved.

Today, then, as Advent begins, let us wait together with joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who will deliver us from the prisons of our reputations and the cells of our self-concepts, and restore us to our original identity as children of a loving God--with all that entails for us, and all that demands of us.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

* My friend Ruth tells me that some scholars speculate that it's actually Jesus who is short--so short that Zacchaeus has to climb a tree to look down enough to see him. That's cold.

** My friend Sean tells me that this text in the original language suggests that Zacchaeus isn't announcing that he will offer restitution but that he already is regularly directing his profits from collecting taxes to the betterment of his society. According to this interpretation, Zacchaeus isn't a lowdown sinner; he's a child of Abraham the "righteous" people of Jericho have decided they don't have to accept. In that respect, they're the sinners, not Zacchaeus.